By the time the images of the bruised and bloody face of alleged domestic violence victim Ashlee Savins had made it into the media, prompting the police – who had previously neglected to press charges against Savins’ boyfriend Justin Toro – into action, the photos had already well and truly made the rounds in the vegan community.
This was due to some unpleasant comments made by “vegan celebrity” Durian Rider, who labelled Savins a “dumb bitch” for not leaving Toro, claiming her ordeal was “100% her fault.”
With over 140,000 Instagram followers, Durian Rider is something of a big deal in the vegan community (or at least to those who a lot of time watching YouTube videos and discussing the carb content of their mostly raw diet).
Sadly, his toxic views on domestic violence are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ill-informed and outright dangerous attitudes prevalent amongst vegans.
Veganism is growing. With Google searches for the term “vegan” increasing by 32% percent in the past year alone. That is a good thing. What isn’t so good is that as the community grows, so too does its disregard for anyone who isn’t an able-bodied, middle-class, white person.
Rider and his partner Leanne Ratcliffe (better known as Freelee the Banana Girl), champion the “Raw till Four” diet, basing much of their advocacy on fat-shaming, with Freelee frequently claiming she just “has to speak up” when she sees people “abusing themselves via the fork”.
In this narrow and small-minded interpretation of veganism, there is no valid alternative to being to hot and skinny. Obesity – along with cancer and even mental illness – are callously blamed on the failure to “carb the f–k up” on a vegan diet, and little sympathy is granted to anyone who doesn’t heed to that message.
But Ratcliffe and Rider have nothing on Gary Yourofsky, an American whose modestly titled lecture, The Greatest Speech You Will Ever See, made such an impact in Israel, it is credited with sparking off a vegan revolution in that country.
Consequently, Yourofsky spends much time in Israel, where he has developed outlandishly racist views on Palestinians, calling them the most “psychotic group on the planet”. A self-described misanthrope, Yourofsky exhorts his followers to focus only on the plight of animals and “forget about those Palestinian maniacs”.
This is the core of what is wrong with the mainstream vegan community today. So many of its adherents refuse to make the connection between human oppression and the exploitation of animals.
When people first become vegan, they tend to seek out the company of other vegans. It’s a vital support network for what can be a very isolating experience. Once you have opened your eyes to the extent of the suffering we inflict on animals, your world is never quite the same. The grief is real and it is intense.
Unfortunately, mainstream veganism is not always a safe space for people of colour, feminist women, the disabled, and those who don’t fit the conventional model of attractiveness.
I’ve had to filter most online vegan group I followed because I couldn’t handle another discussion about how fat vegans make other vegans “look bad”, or about how vegan food is so cheap that all poor people, even those living in areas like the infamous food deserts in the US, had “no excuse”.
Speaking of excuses, I grown tired of those made for groups like PeTA, which despite its vital and tireless work advocating for animals in slaughterhouses and laboratories, still insists on exploiting and objectifying women.
I found myself endlessly frustrated with a movement that readily appropriates the struggles of other groups by comparing factory farms to slavery, but ignores the voices of people of colour when they object to white vegans – such as celebrity vegan chef’s Thug Kitchen – profiting from racist stereotyping of black people.
I am disenchanted that a movement that is comprised mostly of women nonetheless elevates white men to most leadership positions. Men such as Professor Gary Francione who thinks it is his place to lecture women on whether or not they can call themselves feminists. And I’m dismayed that critiques of prominent vegans are routinely shut down because these men are “doing so much for the animals”.
All of which leaves me asking how a movement that emerged as a direct challenge to the ideals and excesses of western capitalism could do such a thorough job of emulating it.
Of course, in this veganism is not alone. The white capitalist system is remarkably adept at not only neutralising challenges to its existence but at absorbing them to make itself stronger.
It is ironic, for instance, how the push for marriage equality brought that dying institution back from the brink to the thriving mega business it is today. Same-sex couples still can’t get married in Australia, but everyone else can. There’s also the way radical feminist critiques of female objectification have been shouted down by shallow declarations of female empowerment. But when riot grrl gave way to girl power, you know it was because someone was making a lot of money.
But what sets veganism apart from other movements is that it is the only one that advocates on behalf of a group that cannot speak for itself. And that makes it even easier for wider society to ignore.
The acceptance of veganism into the broader social justice movement hinges on bridging this gap. And no one is better placed to do so than those vegans who are most marginalised in society – people of colour, women, LGBTI, fat people, disabled people. Indeed many, such as Sistah Vegan creator A. Breeze Harper, disability advocate and artist Saunara Taylor, and ecofeminist pioneer Carol Adams, already are.
That their voices are drowned out is a tragedy not only for these tireless activists but for the animals that all vegans wish to save.
Any vegan who thinks animal liberation can be achieved without addressing human oppression is kidding themselves. You cannot end an injustice by replicating the conditions that created it.